Sustainability nonprofit Ceres released its 14th annual air emissions benchmarking report Wednesday, showing the power sector emissions reductions that come from state-level policy drivers and industry-led initiatives for renewable procurement.
The trend lines indicate the "continued decoupling of economic growth from CO2 emissions in the power sector," Ceres Director of Electric Power Dan Bakal told Utility Dive. The report also tracks nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions across the power sector.
A new analysis of mercury emissions reveals an 86% reduction in air emissions since 2000, following the first federal limits on the toxin and other hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants that went into effect in 2015.
The Trump administration backed out of the Paris Climate Accord last year, claiming that the policies to reduce emissions took a great toll on industries and economic growth. But Ceres' latest report shows that increased renewable generating capacity and economic growth are possible together.
"I think it does counter some of the arguments out there that reducing CO2 emissions can take a toll on the economy," Bakal said.
Analyzing 2016 data from the 100 largest power producers in the U.S., Ceres found CO2 emissions were only 1% higher than 1990 levels — declining 24% from 2005. Bakal credited the reductions to the dramatic growth in corporate procurement of renewables along with state-driven policy, such as renewable portfolio standards and energy storage targets.
Entergy, one of the power companies that partnered with Ceres on their report, is a model for driving emissions reductions on its own, having become in 2001 "the first U.S. utility to commit voluntarily to stabilizing CO2 emissions," according to company spokesperson Ann Day Becker.
But there are some doubts about whether current emission trends can continue.
Some conservative analysts are working to forecast the impact of the Trump administration’s policies to revive manufacturing in the U.S., which could reverse the trend of declining carbon emissions. Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the advocacy group Competitive Enterprise Institute, considers the economy as less energy intensive due to a growing service sector and a shift of heavy manufacturing to China.
"If you count our imports of energy-intensive manufactured goods as part of our carbon footprint, then I doubt that our emissions have gone down," Ebell told Utility Dive via email.
However, "much of the loss of U.S. manufacturing occurred before the decoupling of GDP and emissions that we've seen in the last decade," Bakal said, in response to Ebell’s comment on carbon leakage.
The benchmark report also highlights the effect of targeted emissions regulations by tracking mercury air emissions by looking at the impact of the Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, focused on technologies used to control mercury emissions from coal plants.
The EPA's mercury standards are still under review by the agency and the courts, power companies have largely complied with its requirements. There are some expectations it could be eliminated or scaled back, as with other Obama-era environmental rules.
But according to Ceres, the standards have led to large mercury air emissions reductions in a short amount of time.
Mercury emissions declined 83% at coal facilities operating by the end of 2016, compared with their 2014 levels — "pretty clearly" a testament to the effectiveness of the federal rule, Bakal said. "That’s a pretty significant shift in a pretty short period of time," he told Utility Dive.
The Trump Administration is taking a number of steps favorable to coal, including EPA loosening pollution control requirements for major sources of hazardous emissions, but Bakal said that has not shifted momentum away from clean energy, for now.
While Ceres is watching the EPA closely, "we’re not seeing much indication yet that there’s a shift sort of back toward coal or increases in emissions," Bakal said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misrepresented Bakal's view on the Trump administration's support of coal. The support and the administration's attempted rollbacks of emissions regulations are very concerning to him.